Client Service - The Ethical Case for Keeping Clients Satisfied

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by Roy Ginsburg, J.D.

If you ask most attorneys whether their clients are satisfied, the vast majority would, of course, say "yes." If you then ask them "what makes you so sure?" the responses would typically range from "They don’t complain" and "They’re nice to me" to "They pay their bills" or "They continue to do business with us." A closer examination of these reasons, however, reveals that such client behavior hardly indicates satisfaction.

Your're Not as Good as You Think Customer satisfaction surveys in all industries indicate that when a customer receives poor service, only about 4% will actually complain. There is no reason to think that the figure is any different within the legal industry. In fact, the percentage may be even less since some clients are intimidated by their lawyers and, as a result, would never even think of complaining. You may have even experienced this yourself. Think about the times you have been out to a restaurant and received either lousy food or service. How often do you complain? Most of the time, you probably don’t. You just never go back again.

Lawyers also read too much into the fact that bills paid in a timely manner reflect client satisfaction. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, if you’re like me, you pay your cell phone bills on time. If you’re also like me, you could probably write a book about ways that your cell phone company could improve its service to you.

Finally, many attorneys assume that clients who continue to do business with them must be satisfied. Why else would they keep coming back? Reasonable assumption? Yes, but wrong in many instances. Let’s go back to the cell phone company. Why don’t I switch? Primarily because I’m lazy. I don’t have the time to research other companies. I assume competitors are probably no different and while the service is not good, it is not awful. Would I ever switch? You betcha. What would it take? One of two things; either an instance of horrendous service or I learn that a competitor is offering a significantly better deal than I have now. In other words, I’m looking for an excuse to stop doing business and eventually I will find it. Your clients are no different. Many are either waiting for something noticeably better down the street or for you to make a colossal mistake.

Statistics further indicate that clients are not as satisfied as lawyers think. In 2001, a national consulting firm polled Fortune 1000 clients and found that 75% of them were not satisfied. Significantly, of the 25% that were satisfied, client service drove satisfaction two times more than any other reason cited.

The obvious disconnect between lawyer perception and client reality is supported by a recent Corporate Legal Times survey. When asked to respond to the question "The level of law firm service has improved over the past five years," seventy-five percent of the lawyers responding said yes, but only 35% of the General Counsels responding agreed.

Why is Client Service so Important? Client service is the most critical component in maintaining client satisfaction for a variety of reasons. First, it provides you or your law firm with a competitive edge. Can you name a department store or airline that has a great reputation for customer service? Many would answer Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines. Now, can you name a law firm in your state or anywhere in the nation with a great reputation for client service? You can’t because there aren’t any. Law firms certainly have reputations, but they are usually about such things as their expertise or aggressiveness.

Lawyers have a tendency to overestimate the importance of their expertise and competence as the competitive edge. This is especially true in the corporate world. The reality is that generally speaking, the majority of law firms representing corporate America do very good work. As an in-house corporate attorney for more than a dozen years who routinely hired outside counsel, I rarely, if ever, worried about the competency of the attorneys I retained. I always assumed they would be competent and that assumption proved to be accurate virtually all of the time. However, I always worried about the type of service that I would receive from outside counsel. Would they be responsive? Keep me informed? Keep the matter moving along? Bill my company reasonably? Treat me like I wanted to be treated? I rarely had complete confidence in these matters. If I had had complete confidence in a firm, they would have always received my business.

When coaching lawyers on business development strategies, I always stress the importance of being able to distinguish themselves from the competition. What better way to do that than by emphasizing how you serve your clients. Lawyers who are technical experts are a dime a dozen; lawyers who provide extraordinary client service are few and far between.

Another reason why client service is so crucial is that when handling a legal matter for a client, the service that you provide is the only thing you have complete control over and the client can intelligently evaluate. Clients judge lawyers based on three things: 1) results; 2) outputs; and 3) service. Let’s examine each one.

Results means simply "Did we win?" or "Did the deal close?" But how much control do lawyers have over these matters? Very little. While advocacy skills can certainly make a difference in litigation, when all is said and done, most cases are won or lost based on the facts and the law; factors lawyers have little control over. Even the best corporate lawyer may not be able to close a transaction if a party’s unreasonable demand blows up a deal.

Outputs are the work produced by lawyers. Examples include briefs or contracts. How many of your clients carefully review your briefs? And even if they do, do they know the difference between a good one and bad one? Unlikely. As for contracts, when was the last time you had a client remark to you "You know that indemnification clause you inserted in our last deal; that was the best one I’ve ever seen!" The fact of the matter is that most clients, even sophisticated in-house counsel, either don’t have the time or the expertise to intelligently evaluate your work product.

Now let’s talk about service. How much control do you have over whether you return a phone call within a reasonable amount of time? Will your client be able to evaluate whether you were responsive? Lawyering involves so many things that are beyond an attorney’s control and an exhibition of skills that clients cannot evaluate. Why not take full advantage of the one thing you can control and clients fully understand?

A final reason why service is so important is the avoidance of ethics complaints. In California, as well as nationwide, the vast majority of ethics complaints relate to service issues. Within the California Rules of Professional Conduct, three rules govern most of the service-related aspects of the lawyer-client relationship. The first is Rule 3-110 - Failing to Act Competently. Here, the service-related complaint is frequently "Why is this taking so long?" The second Rule is Rule 3-500 - Communication. Clients want to know "What is going on?" Finally, there’s Rule 4-200. Fees for Legal Service. The complaint here is "Why did this cost so much?"

In order to avoid these types of complaints, you need to establish an excellent working relationship with your client. Few lawyers appreciate the fact that, while law is a profession, it is nevertheless first and foremost, a service business. In many ways, you are no different than the person who cuts your hair. Let me explain. If you’re like me, your hair has been cut by the same barber/hairdresser for many years. Now ask yourself, in theory, is there someone else in your town who could do a better job? Is there someone else who could do it for less money than what you’re paying now? The answer to both questions is most likely, yes. So, if you know there is someone who could do a better job and for less money, then why do you stay with your present barber/hairdresser? For many of us, it’s because of the great relationship you have with them. You like them, you trust them, you believe they will do their best for you and they care about you; the same precise reasons why many of your clients keep coming back to you.

Managing Expectaions - What do Clients Expect? What’s the secret to establishing great relationships with your clients? Manage and, at times, exceed their expectations. Whenever handling matters, your clients have a slew of expectations regarding a wide variety of issues. Successful lawyers ascertain those expectations, communicate and negotiate which expectations are realistic and which are not, and then satisfy, or better, exceed those expectations. And remember to check in with your clients throughout the course of the representation to make sure their expectations are being satisfied. Client expectations are a moving target and you need to carefully perceive the movements. Most of your clients won’t complain when something disappoints them, but they won’t likely forget.

Which expectations ultimately determine if your clients will be satisfied? It helps to categorize them into four separate areas. I will summarize the four and then go into more detail about each later.

The first expectation is quality. Your clients have expectations regarding how the process itself works, as well as the outcome. Second, is time. Clients have expectations about when things will get done. Third, is price. Clients have expectations regarding the cost of legal representation. Finally, there is the interpersonal piece of the equation. Clients have expectations about how they will be treated. Ultimately, you will be judged in all of these areas. By the time the matter is concluded, your clients will walk away with an intangible "feeling" that the entire experience was either satisfactory or not based on these categories.

Quality Quality consists of two separate components. The first is the process. Are you easy to do business with? A sampling of process-type items that may be important to your clients includes, how convenient is parking? Is there something to read in the reception area if you are running late? Are your bills easy to understand? If you need to review their documents, do you make an extra effort to make it as painless as possible for them to gather them up for you? In short, are your processes as user-friendly as possible.

The second component of quality is the outcome. Most lawyers overestimate the importance of the outcome as a factor in determining client satisfaction. Now don’t get me wrong, clients are definitely very concerned about outcomes, but client satisfaction is determined far more by how well you manage the expectation of the outcome, rather than the outcome itself.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a lawyer is communicating to your clients what you think the result will be. Most attorneys fall into one of two camps: they are either "cheerleaders" or "chicken littles." The cheerleaders tell clients what they want to hear. In many of those instances, they inevitably end up with a very disappointed client when the bad result comes in. Then there are the chicken littles. They tell their clients every conceivable reason why the matter may not turn out the way the clients want it to. They act this way because they believe that the clients then won’t blame them for a bad result since they’ve been adequately forewarned. The problem with this approach is that who wants to hire a lawyer who tells you all of the ways the matter can go wrong? They will take their business elsewhere. Clients want lawyers with a "can-do" attitude. The best lawyers are cheerleaders and chicken littles at the same time. They consistently convey a supportive outlook, while at the same time, when necessary, know when and how to deliver the news that they know their clients don’t want to hear. It is an art and a science...and few do it well.

Time When you call someone and leave a message, what is your expectation as to when it will be returned? 2 hours? 4 hours? Same day? We all have an expectation and certainly your clients have expectations whenever they leave a message for you. Do you know what that expectation is? Have you ever thought to ask? If you don’t ask, how do you know if you are successfully managing their expectation? What about e-mail? If your client sends you an e-mail, when do they expect a response from you? I don’t care how busy you are, under most circumstances, with the technology available today, there is really no excuse for not getting back to a client on the same day a call or e-mail is received. It may not be during normal business hours, but you can always acknowledge the receipt of the message by voicemail or email in the evening and let clients know when they can expect to hear from you. It’s just common courtesy that all clients deserve.

Price A recent survey by Corporate Legal Times indicated that billing issues are the number one source of friction with corporate clients. No surprise here. But here’s a startling statistic from that same survey. Thirty-five percent of the General Counsels believed that law firms padded their bills. In others words, over a third thought that major corporate law firms were literally stealing from them. That’s a pretty sad commentary about our profession.

There is obviously a serious communication gap between lawyers and clients regarding fees. Many lawyers feel uncomfortable discussing fees and simply state their hourly rate or that they work on a contingency fee basis. Rarely do lawyers explain to clients the value of the service being provided. Clients will have far fewer complaints about high fees if they have a better understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and why it is necessary to do certain tasks. Always try to provide a budget and keep it up to date. Few things upset clients more with respect to fees than a monthly bill that has unanticipated fees on it. That should never occur if you are communicating properly with your clients. If something turns out to take longer than anticipated, clients should be informed at the time you are doing the work, not when the bill is sent out weeks later. Once again, it all comes back to managing expectations.

Interpersonal Finally, there are the interpersonal skills of the lawyer. Are you polite? Do you listen? Are you reliable? Do you appreciate your clients’ business? In short, are you treating your clients the way they want to be treated? The importance of these skills cannot be overstated because if you make a mistake here, your client may not forgive you and will take their business elsewhere. Let’s go back to the other three categories. Will your client leave you if your parking is not that convenient? If you manage the outcome expectation of a litigation matter, will your client leave you if you lose? Will they leave you if you take an extra day to return a phone call? Will they leave you if one month’s bill is higher than anticipated? Under most circumstances, they will not take their business elsewhere. They will forgive you. However, if you are rude, don’t listen or aren’t reliable, many will leave. Why? Because they take those things personally.

Conclusion In sum, if you want to be a successful lawyer and significantly reduce the likelihood of having an ethics complaint filed against you, you can’t ignore client service. I’m sure that many of you have been thinking to yourself while reading this article, "I don’t have time for all this stuff; I only have time to practice law." The truth is that all of this "stuff" is the practice of law.

After reading this article, attorneys can earn one hour of participatory "Legal Ethics" California MCLE credit by completing and submitting the associated exercise.

 

ROY S. GINSBURG is an attorney, CLE provider, and attorney coach. He provides services to individuals and firms from offices in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He can be reached at roy@royginsburg.com.

 

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